By Orion Donovan-Smith*
In the context of international aid and development work, the archetype of the Oppressed Third-World Woman is a common motif, frequently evoked in justifying interventions—humanitarian, military, and other—in the name of women’s rights. This attitude is generally premised on a depiction of women in the developing world as passive subjects oppressed by their culture, whose liberation depends on the benevolence of Westerners.
In recent years, this attention has been especially directed toward Muslim women, images and discussion of whom have appeared increasingly in the context of the “War on Terror.” The idea of an omnipotent culture that dictates the thoughts and behavior of Muslim women, coupled with widespread unease around Islam among Westerners, has led to an exceptional sense that they are more beholden to “culture” than women in the West are, and that the latter can impart to them some liberating knowledge of which they are otherwise ignorant.
While a desire to help others is admirable, it is important to consider the assumptions that underlie that desire and to be mindful of their effects, both good and bad. When we position ourselves as the arbiters of “rights,” able to define and combat oppression on behalf of others, we create a one-way relationship in which we evaluate others but seldom turn a critical eye on ourselves and our own culture. Our point of reference in defining the oppression of women in the developing world—i.e., the position of women in the West—is, of course, far from static, constantly subject to changing ideas about the rights and roles of women here. Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor at Columbia University, has written that “Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners.” This attitude has the dual effects of drawing attention away from problematic aspects of our own societies while effectively dehumanizing women in the Muslim world by representing them as passive subjects, ostensibly the opposite of the intention of the liberating mission. Further, it obscures the roles of Western powers and individuals in creating the conditions under which those women live.
In the past year, coverage of the Arab Spring has brought very different images of Muslim women to the public eye. Women like Tawakkul Karman, a leader of the opposition in Yemen and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and countless others who have taken active roles in activism across the Arab world have shown the world that Muslim women are anything but passive. That is not to say that they are without problems to address—nor are women here in the U.S.—but rather that they are the ones best suited to address those problems. What I am suggesting is emphatically not cultural relativism—the idea that we should ignore but rather respect for difference and a consideration of the effects of our benevolence. We are all, indeed, in a position to help others, and we can best do so only when we accept that our good intentions, left unexamined, can cause harm.
* As a white, culturally Christian, American man, I’m not likely the person one would expect to write this. I’m writing it, though, because I’m deeply troubled by the assumptions and attitudes about Islam—and the position of Muslim women in particular—by many people in the West.